SPARK Award finalists Ruth Giles, Lynell Dillard, Leticia Sifuentes, Melanie Jenkins, Mimi Munoz, and Gerjuan O’Neal. Photo courtesy of alliantgroup

Remember voting last month for the SPARK Award, the program that rewards outstanding HISD science teachers? Well, folks, we have a winner.

During a luncheon on Thursday at alliantgroup’s headquarters in the Galleria area, elementary science teacher Leticia Sifuentes was named this year’s SPARK Award winner for her outstanding work at Bonner Elementary School.

Since 2019, alliantgroup has partnered with Houston ISD to reward innovative science teachers who are increasing student engagement by emphasizing the importance of science, but also why it’s fun.

Sifuentes says she has worked alongside incredible teachers throughout her career, and that is why she is so honored to be chosen among them now.

“I am so excited to have won this award, especially with the company I was in. They are all fabulous teachers,” says Sifuentes. “I am extremely honored to have won this award for my students, because they are the reason I am here.”

Sifuentes has only been teaching at Bonner Elementary School for one year but is a veteran in the classroom, with 24 years of experience. She says her own fifth grade teacher inspired her to also become an educator.

“My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Johnson, was very interactive,” says Sifuentes. She was definitely somebody I looked up to and wanted to be exactly like.”

Sifuentes was selected among five other finalists, including: Melanie Jenkins with Katherine Smith Elementary School, Ruth Giles with Cornelius Elementary School, Mimi Muñoz with Seguin Elementary School, Gerjuan O’Neal with Mark Twain Elementary School, and Lynell Dillard with Clemente Martinez Elementary School.

All six teachers were gifted $500 toward their classrooms. The finalists were also given $1,300 for themselves and the winner took home $3,500 for herself.

SPARK Award winners Deirdre Ricketts (2019), Leticia Sifuentes (2022), Whitnee Boston (2021). Photo courtesy of alliantgroup

Despite the competition, Sifuentes says this group of teachers has already become close and is focused on helping each other succeed in the classroom.

“They are all amazing teachers and we have a created our own professional learning community group,” she says. “We’ve started an email chat where we share ideas and collaborate with one another. That is one of the best things about meeting other teachers through this: We are all willing to help each other, which is how you become a better educator.”

The nominees were selected by HISD’s science curriculum department before being interviewed by a panel of judges, who ultimately chose the grand prize winner.

The panel included the newly appointed general manager of Univision, Glen Coleman; senior principal Frances Crossingham with Slalom Consulting; FOX 26 meteorologist Lena Maria Arango; and Ivan Rodriguez, who is the founder and CEO of Glocal Advantage.

They got the chance to meet the finalists, interview them, and then see a video of each teacher in action inside their classroom. Casey Curry, senior director of strategic communications and philanthropy at alliantgroup, says after getting to know Sifuentes better, she understands why the judges selected her as this year’s winner.

“Leticia was our honorable mention teacher in 2019 and I’m so thrilled she is our winner this year,” Curry says. “She truly embraces her students and because of her own experiences she is able to relate to them in a unique way.”

“Many times, my students think being bilingual is negative and keeps them from things, but I tell them it is their superpower,” says Sifuentes. “Now they have two languages they can use to be successful. I tell them they will use it all the time because it is quite valuable.”

This is the fourth year that alliantgroup has recognized and rewarded HISD elementary science teachers. You can learn more about this year’s SPARK Award nominees here.

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Houston thought leaders look for extraterrestrial intelligence at Future Focus event

Out of This World

The latest Future Focus discussion held by alliantgroup was out of this world! The company teamed up with InnovationMap to host Dr. Seth Shostak from the SETI Institute at alliantgroup headquarters in the Galleria area. The conversation focused on how new technology is helping in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Dr. Robert Ambrose, alliantgroup strategic advisory board member, was the moderator for the night. He recently retired from NASA as the chief of software, robotics, and the simulation division, and clarified why it is crucial we have these conversations with Dr. Shostak about space and ask the question: Do aliens exist?

“We should be looking up. We should be thinking about what is coming and how we are going to be a part of it. It is an exciting time in space,” said Dr. Ambrose.

Dr. Shostak has been the senior astronomer and director at the SETI Institute in San Francisco for the past 20 years. He explained to the audience there is a difference between the search for aliens and the search for life in the universe.

“SETI stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, but it's not the same as the search for life, which it's often confused with,” explained Dr. Shostak. “You might find life on Mars, but it's not going to be very clever. But when you look for extraterrestrial intelligence, you are looking for the kind of aliens you might see on television or in the movies. Are they intelligent, can they communicate with us, and can they hold a conversation?”

Dr. Shostak believes we can infer aliens exist because of the number of planets and stars there are in the universe. But he also believes the search is heating up thanks to new technology and satellites currently being developed.

“Do I think we probably will find them in our lifetime? I honestly do," he said. "You could say that's just wishful thinking and perhaps it is, but it's more than that. It is the fact that the equipment is getting better very quickly."

He bets that by 2035 we will have found and communicated with extraterrestrial intelligence. Both Dr. Shostak and Dr. Ambrose agree, once we have found this life, our world will change for the better.

“We are going to learn all sorts of things about physics and the rules of the universe that we’ve never uncovered,” explained Dr. Ambrose. “Imagine everything we could have taught humans about the universe a couple hundred years ago. What if we can find someone who could teach us those lessons today? What an acceleration we would have.”

This was just the second Future Focus discussion alliantgroup has hosted, and CEO Dhaval Jadav said he hopes to continue to lead these innovative conversations around technology.

“We started this future focus series of roundtables to engage thought leaders and industry experts on topics related to the development of new technologies," Jadav said. "We are living in a most exciting and heady time, with the adoption of new technologies and platforms accelerating at an unprecedented rate.

"In order for us to stay abreast of all these exciting innovations — from web 3 to sportstech, blockchain, AI/quantum computing, the metaverse and our ever-expanding universe, including the search for extraterrestrial intelligence – we must continue to hold thought-provoking dialogues to further explore and chart our path to the future."

You can click here to learn more about alliantgroup’s previous event and what’s to come.

alliantgroup Future Focus spacetech

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Inaugural panel discussion dives deep into emerging tech partnerships

Sports Talk

On March 24, more than 100 guests gathered at alliantgroup's head-turning conference center in the Galleria area for an exciting discussion on the sportstech industry, co-sponsored by InnovationMap. The panelists included Houston-based thought leaders, founders, and investors who shared their insights while discussing how the city of Houston can emerge as a leader in sports technology.

With the backdrop of Houston’s skyline, the event began with an hour of networking, drinks, and light bites. Then alliantgroup’s CEO, Dhaval Jadav, kicked off the discussion by sharing his enthusiasm for the inaugural Future Focus series and introduced David Gow as the moderator for the night’s topic.

Gow is the CEO of Gow Media and the CEO of a SPAC (Special Purpose Acquisition Corp) that has raised $115 million to invest in sportstech. He explained how “technology is transforming the sports industry, creating new billion-dollar industries seemingly overnight.”

He defined sportstech within four categories: health and performance, fan engagement, e-sports, and fantasy and gambling. Across these categories, technology is enabling interconnectedness through social interaction, new communities, improved health, subscriber-based business models, software as a service, and new revenue streams.

And this doesn’t even do justice to all the changes happening with NIL, NFTs and Web3.

The panel included an all-star cast, with two from academia, an executive from the Houston Astros, and two sportstech entrepreneurs:

  • Beena George, chief innovation officer and professor of management at University of St. Thomas
  • Tom Stallings, professor of sports management at Rice University
  • Jimmy Comerota, director of strategic partnerships for the Houston Astros
  • Dez, co-creator of Apollo Houston
  • Jorge Ortiz, CEO of VarsityHype

Future Focus sportstech

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Gow began by asking the panelists “which innovation intrigues you the most?” and responses ranged from wearables to enhance wellness to new training equipment to the rise of e-sports and the metaverse, the latter of which Ortiz displayed particular enthusiasm about. He has already made a bet on the future — last year he bought a tavern in the metaverse, naming it “Isla,” after his newborn.

Gow cited Houston-based company nVenue as being well positioned for the future of sports betting.

“The company will profit from microbetting, which is rapid bets on individual moments within a game, e.g. a bet on whether a batter will get on base, etc," said Gow. "It takes raw, historical data, such as a batting average, and turns it into betting odds real-time, pitch by pitch.”

George noted that University of St. Thomas now has an e-sports team. “The young demo in e-sports suggests a high-growth future,” she shared.

The panel agreed that we are already seeing the impacts on the merging of sports and technology and how it’s shaping our engagement here in Houston.

"Everyone that knows me knows that I am a sports fanatic, and I was absolutely blown away by the panel and their discussion on what’s on the horizon for the fan experience," said Jadav. "I was riveted by the discussion and they covered so many exciting topics. I am also super excited about how Web3 and the metaverse will change how we interact with athletes and creatives and create a more immersive experience for all. I can’t wait for the next event.”

Future Focus: Sportstech was the first of many planned discussions that alliantgroup and InnovationMap are hosting. The series was created as a way for industry leaders and burgeoning startups to exchange ideas and talk about what the future of technology looks like for all of us.

The next event will focus on spacetech and is scheduled for May 5. It will be moderated by alliantgroup chairman of robotics and artificial intelligence Dr. Robert Ambrose, who recently retired from NASA, where he served as the chief of software, robotics, and simulation division at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The panel will include Dr. Seth Shotak, senior astronomer and director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in California.

These Future Focus panels are free to attend, though registration is encouraged.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.